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Sunday 15 July 2012

Political Prisoner

Isn’t it curious that political prisoners are found only in non-western countries and that they are always claimed to be unjustifiably imprisoned? Typically when a non-western state finds someone had compromised the sovereignty of the state and denies that he or she is a so called “political prisoner” the west claims that the prisoner had merely criticized or acted to oust those in power and therefore is unfairly punished. There never seem to be a reverse situation where a non-western state is accusing a western state of having political prisoners. Are we to believe that only non-western countries are culpable of having political prisoners? Is it unfair to imprison someone for political reasons alone?
There certainly is an asymmetry in the recognition of political prisoners between western and non-western states. One reason for this is the hegemonic powers that the western educational system and the pro-western media enjoy over its counter parts. Usually opinions created by the west are uncontested by other sources of information, even in non-western countries. When the west brands someone as a political prisoner we are taught to accept it as the standard view and the opposition as mere alternative views whereas, ideally, all views should be given equal recognition. Unfortunately we have allowed this perverted standardization to permeate throughout our cultural and political space without hindrance. For instance, listening to a famous Sri Lankan pop duo singing about an “ethnic woman” makes one wonder whether we have come to accept white Caucasian race as the standard race while relegating other races to mere ethnicities. In any case, whether one is a political prisoner or not is debatable and there is no reason to consider the western view as the standard view.
The asymmetry is also due to the fact that western states are much stronger and unyielding than their counterparts. That mean, a person is less likely to pose a threat to the sovereignty of a western state by committing the same acts that would be considered threatening to a non-western state. Take Noam Chomsky of the USA against any of our own celebrated dissidents like Jehan Perara or Paikiasothy Saravanamutthu. Though Chomsky is miles ahead in caliber he has very little political leverage in his own country. This is mainly due to the narrow political view of the American public. Historically both democratic and republican governments of the US have behaved the same way when it comes to public policy but the media and the educational system have created an impression that they represent two extreme political ideologies. In reality the difference between the two is so insignificant that media outlets that openly support either one of the parties spend so much time and effort to distinguish them from the media that support the opposite party. In the end, the public taking comfort in this fake diversity is beaten into conformity of very narrow political view. Chomsky’s world does not fit in to their narrow view and the American public fails to fathom his point. On the other hand, the political spectrum in Sri Lanka is much wider and even likes of Saravanamutthus have a huge stake in it. However their political leverage is not due to their popularity on a grass root level or their ideologies but due to the western powers that finance their existence. These western powers can exert much pressure on the Sri Lankan state through the likes of Saravanamutthus than Chomsky could on his home state by himself. Therefore while Chomsky pose no threat to the sovereignty of the USA and has no likelihood of becoming a political prisoner in the USA, Saravanamutthus of Sri Lanka have the potential to pose a real threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
The asymmetry is also due to the hypocrisy on the part of the west which does not want to recognize that political crimes can be committed against sovereign states other than theirs. A political crime, according to the Wikipedia, is an “offence involving overt acts or omissions (where there is a duty to act), which prejudice the interests of the state, its government or the political system”. So if we are to believe that sovereignties of all nations are equally important then we should not have a problem in realizing that acts which prejudice the interests of any state is a political crime and a state has a right to incarcerate anyone it think has committed a political crime. Thus political crimes are not aberrations and political imprisonment is not always unfair as it made out to be; that is of course if we accept that sovereignties of all nations are equally important. But this is precisely what the western states do not want to accept.
However the west has no problem in punishing those who act against the interest of its states without calling them political prisoners. As commonly known, the western states harbor scores of prisoners whom they identify as Islamic terrorists. These prisoners, most of whom are not even citizens of western countries, can be found in various prisons around the world. While we may argue the fairness of these imprisonments, with respect to the western states these prisoners must be correctly identified as political prisoners as they have allegedly acted against the interests of certain western states.
Like human rights, the political prisoner is a political weapon invented by the west to undermine the sovereignty of other states. Instead of shying away from the accusations of political imprisonment we must assert that as a sovereign state we have the right to punish those who act against the interests of our state and in turn they may be identified as political prisoners if one wishes to do so.

-Janaka Wansapura